The Screen and St. Charles

Today is the feast of St. Charles Borromeo, and as such, I am writing on the topic of the confessional. The confessional booth and screen has been in use for about 500 years in the Western Church, and it is St Charles who is largely responsible for introducing it.

Milan Confessional

I am a big fan of the screen for a number of reasons. Since the Second Vatican Council, the “reconciliation room” has replaced the confessional in many places. Sometimes the screen is not provided as an option. Where this is the case, the faithful ought to know that the 1984 code of canon law guarantees they have a right to the screen, and they should not put up with this sort of manipulation. (In the 1917 code of canon law a screen or grill dividing the priest from penitent was mandatory.)

So what are the benefits of the screen? I had a little trouble categorizing the reasons. I ended up dividing it into effects of using the screen and benefits flowing from them.

The priest doesn’t know (or at least must have some doubt) who is confessing.

  1. This protects the seal of the sacrament. Priests are bound, under threat of excommunication and dismissal from the clerical state, to keep all confessions secret. But…there have been recent attempts, as well as many historic examples, of government authorities to force priests to divulge things told to them in confession. If the priest doesn’t know who is confessing, it is impossible for him to break the seal.
  2. Psychologically, being anonymous may help penitents to give a full and honest confession with less anxiety and embarrassment.
  3. It prevents personal biases, intentional or unintentional, on the part of the priest. Advice, penances and such would therefore be more objective to the matter confessed, rather than the particular person.

One typically kneels when behind the screen.

  1. This posture is more appropriate to the nature of the sacrament. It is fitting that one kneel when confessing their faults and asking mercy.
  2. This posture reinforces the interior attitude of humility in the penitent.
  3. Kneeling in the traditional confessional places ones mouth a few inches from the priest’s ear. The result is that one can speak fairly quietly. This makes the confession more private and less likely to be overheard.

It is formal and focused on confessing.

  1. It keeps penitents who tend to be ‘chatty’ from chatting up the priest. Face to face reconciliation rooms with cushy chairs and boxes of tissue encourages the mentality of meeting with a counselor or having a friendly chat with Father in the rectory living room.
  2. It prevents priests who tend to be casual and ‘chatty’ from chatting up the penitent.
  3. Shorter confessions. This is very important when there are other people waiting to confess. I know 1 and 2 above happen, because I have waited in line on occasion for a certain elderly woman who spent 15 minutes in the face to face side of the confessional and could be overheard giggling. (I have nothing against elderly women, of course).

Lastly, the screen provides a degree of separation between penitent and confessor.

  1. If I were a priest, I would absolutely refuse to hear confessions of individuals in a windowless, soundproof room. There are too many people out there who wouldn’t hesitate to accuse a priest of inappropriate behavior in an attempt to make a quick buck.
  2. As a father, I will not be sending my children into a windowless, soundproof room with someone I hardly know. Bad men can receive holy orders just as easily as virtuous ones.

I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve gone to confession without a screen. One of them was to a fairly traditional priest. It was a makeshift situation. He sat in a chair resting his head on his hand. He didn’t look up, I knelt beside him, and pretty much had all the benefits of behind the screen. On one other occasion, I stepped into a confessional to find that all dividers had been removed. It was arranged so that you had to sit directly in front of the minister with him staring at you. This is what I call ‘forced face to face’, and it is wrong (not to mention canonically illegal). The Eastern Church should maintain its tradition, which is out in the open, and more like the first experience I described. We in the West have developed the booth for the practical reasons of privacy without scandal. I think we ought to maintain it.  Confession saves souls. So we should, as much as possible, remove all obstacles to its practice.

St. Charles Borromeo pray for us.

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